Almeida Theatre, London N1
Opened 19 December, 2007

The Almeida is often caricatured in some quarters as catering principally to trendy, middle-class Islingtonians. It's a lazy stereotype that I have never subscribed to, but watching the theatre's first ever family production brought me close.

Catherine Storr's 1958 children's novel has two distinct strains to it. There is the unreality, or surrealism, of ten-year-old Marianne's fever dreams as, bedridden with mononucleosis, she finds her drawings of a mysterious house the boy trapped inside it coming to life (at one point, projections of dozens of watching eyes on the backdrop recall Dalí's designs for Hitchcock). This dreamworld is adroitly caught by Moira Buffini's adaptation and Will Tuckett's production, which unsurprisingly uses dance to express the unarticulated emotions of Marianne and Mark, the boy with whom she seems to be sharing her dreams. But the "real world" component, in which Marianne is tended by her mother, a home tutor and – wonder of wonders! – a doctor who makes daily house calls, seems now to constitute a particular social flavour of nostalgia; it is one rather more flannelly-comforting than Islington-cool, but no less bourgeois. It is, in effect, the shared middle-class, fictional utopia of English children's literature through the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, the golden age that never was but which we have been conditioned to hanker after.

Buffini and Tuckett downplay the social and historical specificity by blending these scenes seamlessly into a single continuous 80-minute piece where, in Marianne's delirium, reality and dreams may seldom be distinguishable. Marianne (Selina Chilton, who stops just this side of being excessively wide-eyed and "childlike") and polio-sufferer Mark (Mark Arends, who has more complexity and ambivalence to get his teeth into) are often carried back to their resting positions by Jack James's doctor-figure after terpsichorean or other exertions, and the furniture in Anthony Ward's design may roll on and offstage as easily in the waking as in the dream world. (I must admit that my own Christmas-cold-medicated fug may also have played some part in this impression of woozy fluidity.) There is some uncertainty of tone in the double twist of the ending when Marianne meets Mark in the waking world; overall, though, the disquiet of rebellious dreams is fully counterbalanced by the reassurance of the warm, cosy bed on waking.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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